Born in Lagos in 1940, the Nigerian artist is best known for his work with multi-instrumentalist and bandleader of Fela Kuti, serving as drummer and musical director of Kuti’s Africa ’70 band from 1968 until his departure from the group in 1979. Throughout his tenure, Allen performed on essential albums like 1975’s ‘Expensive Shit’ and ‘Zombie’ in 1976.
The cause of Allen’s death is not yet known, but was unrelated to coronavirus, the BBC reports.
Described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”, Allen is also largely considered one of the primary co-founders of the Afrobeat genre. “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” Kuti famously commented.
Appearing on the recordings of the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Grace Jones, Allen maintained a consistent output of solo material throughout his career, beginning with 1975 album ‘Jealousy’. Becoming increasingly prolific throughout the 2000s and 2010s, his last solo album was 2017’s ‘The Source’.
Additionally, Allen played as part of supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen with Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong. He released two albums with the group – a self-titled record in 2007 and ‘Merrie Land’ in 2018.
Allen also worked with Albarn along with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as part of the group Rocket Juice & The Moon, releasing an album with the project in 2012.
Allen’s final album, ‘Rejoice’, a collaboration with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, was released in March this year. He had also been working on a release with Foals’ frontman Yannis Philippakis.
“I’ve been writing with Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s drummer,” Yannis told NME back in 2017. “I started doing some tracks with him last year and then I was on tour. So I went back to finish them in Paris. So he’s writing a record and hopefully some of the tracks we’ve been working on will be on that album.”
Asked what he was like to work with the legendary Allen, he replied: “It was awesome. He’s 76. He smokes hash all day. He drinks whiskey. He basically invented a genre with Fela Kuti. He’s like an octopus on the drumkit. He’s an incredible drummer. It’s been nice just to be creative.
RHCP’s Flea has paid tribute to Allen in a lengthy Instagram post, calling the experience of jamming with him “fucking heavenly”. He wrote, “Tony Allen I love you, I’m so grateful to have had the chance to rock with you. God bless your beautiful soul.” Read it in full below.
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The epic Tony Allen, one of the greatest drummers to ever walk this earth has left us. What a wildman, with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it together. Without Tony Allen there is NO afrobeat. I was lucky enough to spend many an hour with him, holed up in a London studio, jamming the days away. It was fucking heavenly. He was and still is, my hero. I wanted to honor his greatness so much when we played together, and I was nervous when we started, but he made me laugh like a two year old, and we fell right into pocket. I lit up like a Christmas tree every time I knew we were about to lay down some rhythm. With Tony’s longtime musical collaborator, friend and champion, Damon Albarn, we jammed til the cows came home. We partied in Nigeria, we partied around Europe, and it was always about the music. Just grooving high, grooving deep. Tony Allen I love you, I’m so grateful to have had the chance to rock with you. God bless your beautiful soul.
Other artists, including Nigel Godrich and Sean Ono Lennon, have honoured Allen on social media.
Tony Allen.. a pioneer who’s vibrations changed popular music forever.. and quite the character too.. RIP.. 🙁 https://t.co/5VqAfZMTfQ
— nigel godrich 🌈 (@nigelgod) May 1, 2020
Another day another legend passes on. It’s really incredible the rate at which we’re losing them. Tony Allen R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/y9tlQeTMTb
— Sean Ono Lennon (@seanonolennon) May 1, 2020
— Yo La Tengo (@TheRealYLT) April 30, 2020